The Brooklyn Nets’ 2023 Media Day offered up some déjà vu, reminiscent of Jacque Vaughn and Sean Marks’ joint press conference one week earlier. The lead story that day was that Ben Simmons was officially back, playing five-on-five, unencumbered. Simmons, naturally, was once again the main story on Monday's full-blown Media Day, and was present to provide some quotes himself. With the preseason Simmons hype/hope reaching its annual zenith, we have that story here.
But as with the Marks and Vaughn a week earlier, there was also much discussion on this iteration of the non-superstar Brooklyn Nets forming an identity, a pathway to being competitive.
Spencer Dinwiddie — as many fans already have — compared this situation to his first stint as a Net, with his trademark honesty: “We’re a little bit more talented than my early [Brooklyn] teams...we’re in a winning position, not necessarily a championship position like we were with the superstars, so somewhere in the middle.”
Don’t let that realistic assessment disappoint you, however. It’s not disappointing Dinwiddie: “I don’t think, as a group, we know our ceiling.”
And how could they? Not only did the Nets sign the likes of Dennis Smith Jr. and Lonnie Walker, nearly guaranteed to get some rotation minutes this season, but added depth in the front-court as well. Furthermore, the Nets that were already in Brooklyn at the end of last year had hardly unpacked, largely thrown together at the trade deadline and expected to perform:
Dorian Finney-Smith has loved competing against his teammates over the last couple weeks: "We never even got to play against each other last year."— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) October 2, 2023
Indeed, there are only five players left from the last game Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving played together back on January 15.
In his season-opening presser, Vaughn said he’d use his first training camp with this group to ask, “Are there schemes that we can lean towards a little bit that last year, we were just a little bit handcuffed this is how we had to play? With a training camp, I’m going to put more things on the guys’ plate early in the year for us to try out.”
Dinwiddie stressed the importance of holding training camp — part of this year’s will be held in Las Vegas — to bond off the court and on the court: “It does wonders for both sides of the ball. When you’re in sync and there’s no confusion, it takes out that moment of second-guessing. The NBA moves too fast. If you have to think twice, you probably missed the play. That’s just the way it goes. We’re hoping we can be on the same page and be in sync.”
Aside from gluing together the roster the way most NBA teams are able to do every season, Sean Marks & co. are emphasizing competition to start the season. With Trendon Watford, Harry Giles, and Darius Bazley potentially fighting for one roster spot, and a host of other players fighting to make the rotation, a competitive camp is all but guaranteed.
“We wanted to acquire guys and keep guys that have a chip on their shoulder, something to prove. I think that’s what we’ve seen so far, just on their own, playing pickup games,” said Marks a week earlier. “You know, it’s been loud, it’s competitive. And I think that’s exactly fits with JV’s model of what he’s wanting to achieve during training camp.”
Fast forward to Media Day, and Marks’ players are singing the same tune. On the competitive nature of workouts and pickup ball thus far, Lonnie Walker says:
“It builds your identity. It shows who is who and what is what, to say the least. Throughout that competitive nature, that edge, it builds each player individually in terms of being ready to play, what we’re expecting out of each other, what we’re trying to do, and what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s been exciting, it’s been fun, but it only makes you want to go harder.+
The hope is that a competitive environment to start the year evolves and becomes the DNA of the team, the culture: “I anticipate that we’ll be a team that just wants to play harder than most. And I know a lot of people say that at this time of year, I happen to think that we mean it,” said Cam Johnson.
Johnson, unfortunately, won’t be fully available at the start of training camp, thanks to a hamstring injury
Brooklyn Nets forward Cam Johnson sustained a mild left hamstring strain during an on-court workout last week and will miss the start of training camp, team says.— Michael Scotto (@MikeAScotto) October 2, 2023
However, Johnson assured reporters that the injury was but “a bump in the road,” and that he absolutely expects to play at some point in the preseason. As Nets fans are well aware of, hamstrings can be tricky, but at least Johnson is confident this is a minor setback.
Johnson much preferred to talk about the identity of a team he expects to grow from internal improvement:
“We have a roster of guys that are hungry. We have a roster of guys that are willing to get better and a roster of guys, you know, a couple guys on the team definitely capable of taking bigger steps in their career, pushing forward. So, it’s really hard to say who it could be because it could be anybody, but I definitely anticipate there will be surprises on guys that may be better than people thought.”
Internal improvement, yes, but more specifically, hunger, grit, toughness. These are the buzzwords we heard most often on Monday afternoon. Not that they felt meaningless, per sé, just that these Nets are accepting what will be the most obvious path to wins for them this season. Through that lens, filling out the rosters with quite a few question marks makes sense Sean Marks et al, aside from the fact that they obviously didn’t have much of a choice.
Nic Claxton summed it up best: “We’re not gonna be the most talented team on the court every single night, it’s just what it is. In the past, I knew that feeling; every night, you’re more talented than the other team. But now, we have to hang our hat on defense, we have to rebound, we can’t be the worst rebounding team in the league, and we’ve been harping on that early on.
Claxton also clearly hasn’t forgotten about his lack of voter recognition when it comes to last season’s defensive awards...
Nic Claxton on a lack of defensive awards: "When KD and Kyrie left, it's like my name just fell off the map in a sense. It makes my blood boil...my numbers were amazing, I passed the eye test. I know you can say it was my first year doing it, but I held down the whole defense."— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) October 2, 2023
Whether Claxton’s comments come across as clichéd or poignant is entirely subjective. As Johnson noted, every team talks the talk at Media Day. They’ll all play hard and do the little things, yada-yada.
The Brooklyn Nets, though, have to fight tooth and nail this year; they have the roster to do so. Sean Marks offloaded some shooting in the offseason to bring in athleticism and defense in the form of players fighting for every contract they can get. This is going to be a team built around defense and transition offense, where a lack of rebounding and communication will kill them. Winning the possession battle is now a non-negotiable; Brooklyn no longer has Kevin Durant’s otherworldly scoring to play catch-up with their own mistakes.
Whether this vision comes to fruition is an entirely different question, one we won’t fully know the answer to until we are deep in the dregs of winter. It’s a scary proposition, but there is one reason for optimism: The Nets know what lies ahead.